Dan Popp
The only begotten
By Dan Popp
December 11, 2017

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, NAS95)

I like different Bible translations. I'm tolerant of some flaws that others condemn because when non-scholars like me can benefit from the wisdom of different groups of translators, that's generally a good thing.

But there is a translation error that bugs me, and it is the dumbing-down of the term familiarly rendered, "only begotten." We know John 3:16 from the old King James Version this way: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." But for "only begotten," the NIV and a few other modern translations read, "one and only," or just "only."

I'm no expert, but...

The Greek word is monogenes. Any dummy like me can look at that and see the two ideas represented. We recognize the word mono from English words like "monorail," "monaural," "monofilament," etc. It means "one, single." And with a little reflection we might connect genes, the second half of that Greek word with "Genesis," "genetic," "generation," and so forth. It has something to do with beginnings, origins, maybe personal origins. So without any training we could come up with something better than the translators who thought we were too stupid to hold two ideas at the same time.

One-begun, single-born, only-begotten.

That is Christ. He is not the "only" son of God; He came to "bring many sons to glory." But he is the only begotten. Note that it takes two English words to convey what is expressed as one Greek word in the original text.

What does this mean, that Jesus is the only begotten? It certainly means that He is unique, but it connotes more than that. He is the Son who shares the nature of the Father "naturally," as we might say. He is not an adopted Son. He has the pedigree that no one else will ever have.

Let's look at other uses of this word monogenes to see if we can't find some clues. The Apostle John uses this term several times to apply to Jesus. From the verse I quoted at the top we learn that Jesus shares the glory of the Father, and that He is "full of grace and truth." (Just as an aside, I find the combination of grace + truth to be a fingerprint of God. By ourselves we tend to get the grace right, or the truth, but rarely both. Just look at all the Christians who think they're showing grace to homosexuals by lying to them.)

A few verses later John writes, "No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (1:18) Jesus is the God-with-God (John 1:1), still counting only One God. From His position of perfect intimacy, the Word reveals the Father. Jesus is God's "explanation" of Himself.

We learn from John 3:16 that belief in this monogenes rescues from eternal death and bestows eternal life. Being in contact with Jesus is to be in contact with Life.

Conversely, in 3:18, "...he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." Not only does the monogenes carry the grace and life of God; remember the "truth" part. Exposure to Him demands a decision. Will you believe? If you reject truth, embodied in Jesus, you reject grace, too.

When Luke uses this word in a more mundane way to describe an "only daughter" or an "only son," (Read Luke 7:12, 8:42, 9:38) we get a sense that this child is the parent's "whole world," as we would say; beloved, and representing all hope for the future.

The writer of Hebrews ties this concept back to the Old Testament. "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son...." (11:17) This may fly right past us if we don't remember that Abraham had another son. And it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who carried the privileges of the firstborn. The author seems to imply that it's the son of faith who counts as the only-begotten, not the son of the flesh.

Jesus didn't start being a son in Bethlehem. That was merely His human, flesh-and-blood birth. The Word has always been. He is unique, that's true; but that thought is incomplete and powerless. When we see the Lord as the Only-Begotten of the Father, the Explanation of the Unexplainable, the Portrait of the Invisible, the One who brings to us in Himself both grace and truth, then we have begun to ponder the mystery hidden here.

© Dan Popp


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